Undergraduate Degree Awards

S&E coursework at the undergraduate level prepares students, S&E degree earners and those who major in non-S&E fields, to become knowledgeable citizens in a society ever more reliant on science and technology. Over the past 20 years, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded by U.S. academic institutions has increased in S&E and non-S&E fields. According to the U.S. Department of Education, numbers of associate’s degrees awarded are projected to continue increasing at least through 2028, while numbers of bachelor’s degrees awarded are projected to stay roughly the same (Hussar and Bailey 2019).

S&E Associate’s Degrees

Associate’s degrees are the final degree earned by some students, whereas others continue their education at 4-year colleges or universities and earn higher degrees. Many who transfer from community colleges to baccalaureate-granting institutions do not earn associate’s degrees before transferring; they may be able to transfer credit for specific courses. Relatively few associate’s degrees are awarded in S&E fields. In 2017, 93,000 out of more than 1 million associate’s degrees (9%) were in S&E fields (Table S2-4 and Table S2-5). The total number of S&E associate’s degrees awarded declined between 2003 and 2007 but has risen in almost all years since then. Until 2012, the overall trend mirrored the pattern in computer sciences, which account for a large portion (nearly 50% in 2012) of S&E associate’s degrees (Figure 2-5). Since 2012, the total number of S&E associate’s degrees has continued to increase despite a decline in the number of computer sciences degrees.

S&E associate's degrees awarded, by field: 2000–17

Note(s):

Physical sciences include earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.

Source(s):

National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Completions Survey; National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Integrated Data System (IDS).

Science and Engineering Indicators

In 2017, community colleges awarded 133,000 associate’s degrees in S&E technologies—more degrees than in S&E fields themselves, which is a long-standing trend. S&E technologies have a more applied focus and include engineering, health sciences, and other S&E technologies. These degrees prepare students for skilled technical jobs (jobs requiring S&E technical expertise but not necessarily a 4-year degree; for more, see the forthcoming Science and Engineering Indicators 2020 report “Science and Engineering Labor Force”). The number of associate’s degrees awarded in S&E technologies peaked at 166,000 in 2012; since then, it has declined for engineering technologies (from 41,000 to 32,000) and health technologies (from 122,000 to 96,000). The decline in associate’s degrees in S&E technologies is greater than the increase seen in S&E associate’s degrees, meaning that the trends reflect more than students switching from one set of fields to the other.

S&E Bachelor’s Degrees

The baccalaureate accounts for nearly 70% of all S&E degrees awarded. The number of S&E bachelor’s degrees awarded rose steadily from about 400,000 in 2000 to more than 680,000 in 2017 (Table S2-6 and Table S2-7). As a share of total bachelor’s degrees awarded, S&E degrees have increased slightly over this period, rising from 32% to 35%.

Growth in bachelor’s degrees conferred varied by field (Figure 2-6, Table S2-6 and Table S2-7). In computer sciences, the number of bachelor’s degrees increased sharply from 2000 to 2004 and dropped as sharply through 2009, but it has increased again since then, surpassing its previous high. In biological sciences, the largest field in natural sciences, numbers of bachelor’s degrees awarded were relatively flat until 2004, then grew substantially. The number of engineering degrees reached the same level as those in psychology.

S&E bachelor's degrees awarded, by field: 2000–17

Note(s):

Physical sciences include earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.

Source(s):

National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Completions Survey; National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Integrated Data System (IDS).

Science and Engineering Indicators

Large public universities have long dominated degree conferral in S&E and in all fields. Additionally, in 2017, the “highest research activity” doctoral universities, as classified by Carnegie, awarded a disproportionately high percentage of S&E bachelor’s degrees (40%) relative to total bachelor’s degrees (28%); this is also a long-standing pattern.

Attainment and Retention in Undergraduate Education

One concern about the ability to produce and retain S&E talent in the United States is that many students who start undergraduate programs in these fields do not complete them (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology 2012). Degree attainment and retention are measured by the U.S. Department of Education’s Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) survey, which examined a nationally representative cohort of first-time, beginning students at the end of their first year in 2011–12, followed up with them 3 years later, and will contact them 6 years later. Data from BPS have been used to look at retention and attainment in S&E fields and at students switching into and out of S&E majors.

The data show that attrition—the rate at which students leave their institution or switch in and out of majors—varies across S&E and non-S&E majors. Students who declared an S&E major were more likely than those who declared a non-S&E major to remain enrolled in postsecondary education 3 years later in any field (i.e., the initially declared major or any other field). For example, 78% of natural sciences and engineering majors and 80% of social sciences majors were enrolled 3 years later, compared with 74% of non-S&E majors.

In contrast, a smaller proportion of students who declared majors in natural sciences and engineering (69%) or social and behavioral sciences (67%) remained enrolled in their field 3 years after beginning their postsecondary education, relative to students who declared non-S&E majors (82%). However, because more than half of students start in non-S&E or undeclared majors, the absolute number of students switching into S&E fields is larger than those switching out (National Science Board 2018).

Graduate Degree Awards

S&E Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees may fully prepare students for established career tracks in some S&E fields. In others, they primarily mark a step toward doctoral degrees. Between 2000 and 2017, master’s degrees awarded in S&E fields more than doubled from about 96,000 to about 206,000. According to the U.S. Department of Education, this increase is projected to continue at least through 2028 (Hussar and Bailey 2019). Increases occurred in most major fields and were strongest in engineering, computer sciences, mathematics and statistics, and biological sciences. The numbers of master’s degrees awarded in computer sciences and engineering declined between 2004 and 2007 but have since increased to their highest points in the last 17 years, with especially rapid growth since 2014. More information on S&E master’s degrees is available in Table S2-8 and Table S2-9.

S&E Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral education in the United States generates new knowledge by closely linking specialized education and research experience. The results are important for U.S. competitiveness in a global knowledge-based economy and for society as a whole. Doctoral education prepares a new generation of researchers and a highly skilled workforce for academia, industry, government, and nonprofit organizations. The number of doctoral degrees awarded is projected to continue increasing at least through 2028 (Hussar and Bailey 2019).

S&E fields account for the majority (64%) of doctorates conferred by U.S. universities. During 2000–17, the number of U.S. S&E doctorates conferred annually increased from around 28,000 to 46,000, faster than the rise in total doctorate awards (from nearly 45,000 in 2000 to more than 71,000 in 2017) (Table S2-10 and Table S2-11). Across fields, the biggest percentage increases occurred in engineering, computer sciences, and medical sciences (Figure 2-7).

S&E doctoral degrees awarded, by field: 2000–17

Note(s):

Physical sciences include earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences. Data differ from doctoral degree data in other tables and figures in this report that are based on the National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates and that refer to research doctorates only. Greatest differences are in psychology and medical sciences.

Source(s):

National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Completions Survey; National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Integrated Data System (IDS).

Science and Engineering Indicators

Since 2000, public universities experienced large increases in doctoral degree awards and in 2017 awarded most doctoral degrees in S&E fields (67%) and in all fields (61%). The 115 “highest research activity” doctoral universities award most doctoral degrees across virtually all fields of study (Table S2-1). In 2017, these institutions awarded nearly 45,000 total doctorates (63% of all doctorates) and nearly 33,000 S&E doctorates (72% of all S&E doctorates). Although still small, the number of S&E doctorates awarded by for-profit institutions (across all classification types) increased fivefold between 2000 and 2017, from about 400 to nearly 2,000 (4% of S&E doctorates).

Time to Doctoral Degree Completion

The time required to earn a doctoral degree has important implications for those pursuing a degree, the universities awarding the degree, and the agencies and organizations funding doctoral study. Median time to degree (as measured by time from graduate school entry to doctorate receipt) varies across fields. For 2017, in S&E, the median ranged from 6.2 years for physical sciences and earth sciences to 7.8 years in psychology and social sciences (NCSES SED 2017: Table 31). Times in non-S&E fields are longer. However, across all fields, median time to degree has decreased over the last 10 years. Median time to degree varies by demographic group (NCSES SED 2017: Table 32), but these variations largely reflect differences among broad fields of study.